Mind Matters — Our Pets, Ourselves

Today, my husband and I buried our cat, Zula – our daughter’s cat, really. She lived with us for more than 18 years. No, her death is not as shattering as my mother’s was. Nor can it ever compare to the deaths of human loved ones such as children or a spouse of 60 years.

Nevertheless, her passage for me is a momentous marker. She was, in my anthropomorphizing, the carrier of memory, of family history. Zula watched friends grow from toddlers to teens. She was solace to my daughter through her middle school and teen years. And when my mother was dying and came to live with us, Zula became the consummate life force who would leap on stair railings, resting benignly on the edge a two-story, downward plunge. My mother even, as she began to slip into a coma, asked for Zula.

She was a special little tabby cat brought home from the SPCA, scared and skinny. She became an affectionate creature, more puppy-like cuddly that cat aloof. But unlike a puppy, she didn’t need to be house trained. Early on, she could catch mice and even a snake or two. That prowess went the way of age.

Some of us are more connected to our pets than to people. Those who have been hurt or harmed by humans may find animals more trustworthy. For these situations, the death of a pet is especially difficult. For others, the pet, although considered a “family member,” does not take priority. No matter where we fit in the continuum of relationship to our pets, when they die, we are all faced with our own mortality.

Odd as this may sound, it can be a growth experience (even though difficult) for a child to have to confront the death of a pet. The child learns that death is the other side of the coin of life. Rather than being shielded from this fact of life, the child must grapple with it head on.

When I was in fourth grade, I had a puppy named Laddie. One day I couldn’t find Laddie and I
searched the streets into the night with the help of classmates. The next day, I discovered that Laddie had been hit by a car. My father didn’t want to share the news with me for fear of my reaction. He wanted to protect me. Actually the truth would have been better. Children can handle truth when it is delivered with compassion and care.

While the importance of human life should be foremost and we honor our grief for our loved ones who have died, we also need to understand the place of pet companions in our lives.

Since Hurricane Katrina, disaster preparedness agencies (such as the American Red Cross) have
begun to acknowledge that many people will not evacuate in an impending disaster, if their pets are not included in the disaster plan.

Perhaps we need our pets as much as they need us.

For more information
about dealing with the death of a pet, go to the ASPCA website: http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/pet-loss/pet-loss-and-children.aspx.
The ASPCA recommends the following resources for children:
Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children, Linda Goldman; Accelerated Development;
Taylor & Francis Group, (800) 821-8312; 1994.
Because of Flowers and Dancers, Sandra S. Brackenridge; Veterinary Practice Publishing Co.; 1994.
Dog Heaven, Cat Heaven,
Cynthia Rylant; The Blue Press; Scholastic, Inc.
Desser the Best Ever Cat, Maggie Smith; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; 2001.
Goodbye Mousie,
Robie H. Harris; Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.
Grunt, Suzanne
Schlossberg, Tamberrino, Centering Corporation; 2001.
Jasper's Day,
Marjorie Blain Parker; Kids Can Press Ltd.; 2002.
Saying Goodbye to Lulu,
Corinne Demas; Little, Brown and Company; 2004.

Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and is
in private practice in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com
or (610)388-2888. Past columns are posted to http://www.drgajdos.com.

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About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.



One Response to “Mind Matters — Our Pets, Ourselves”

  1. jeanne-marie says:

    I can still see the image of my dad carrying our lifeless dog home in a blanket after she had been hit by a car. The tears in his eyes taught my siblings and I that death and grief are normal and universal.

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